Hunters use a number of different tools and measurements to size up or “score” an animal in the field. To get good at the process takes time, practice and experience. Ever wonder how a long-time captain can tell you the weight of tuna within a few pounds just by looking at it? Well, the same can be said of an experienced hunter. But, there are plenty of tips and tools available to help anyone become a better judge of an animal’s size by using the antlers or horns.
As an official measurer for the Pope & Young Club, the record keepers of bow-harvested North American big-game animals, the process of scoring and measuring the size of animals is of particular interest to me. Through this and subsequent articles, I will provide you with the essential tools and knowledge you’ll need to accurately judge a critter on the hoof, and properly score it once you’ve put it on the ground.
While field-judging animals when hunting, you must first actually find one. The second step is being able to scrutinize the animal. In big, wide-open Western country, finding an animal can be the hardest part as the vistas are massive and the animals blend in with their natural surroundings. To find those animals, you really need good optics. To get started you’ll need a pair of binoculars, a spotting scope and a tripod. The most expensive European optics are worth the money, but such an expense is just not realistic for many. As a rule of thumb, purchase the best optics you can afford.
In the Sights
You’ll want to start by using your binoculars. Find some elevated terrain, which will give you a view of a vast expanse of real estate. Your binoculars are best suited for the first glimpse at game. You can keep both eyes open, resulting in less fatigue. You will have a wider field of view as well, and be able to pick off animals more efficiently than with a spotting scope. And don’t be afraid to mount your binoculars on your tripod. The tripod eliminates the inevitable shaking you get from holding them so you can spot animals more effectively.
Once you find an animal, keep following it in the binoculars until you locate a prominent nearby landmark. If you take your eyes out of the binoculars, you run the risk of losing the animal.
I made this mistake numerous times before I learned this valuable lesson. It may just take that critter stepping behind a bush to seemingly disappear forever. If you have a good landmark, you can easily come back to the precise area and wait for him to reappear. A big rock, large tree or even an off-color log or patch of grass may work as a landmark.
Once you pick out that landmark, set your spotting scope on the tripod. Using a detachable attachment plate on the bottom on your spotting scope helps speed this process along. Time is of the essence as the animal can quickly move away from the landmark. It also helps to keep all of your equipment readily accessible.
An often-forgotten element in a good glassing system is a quality tripod head. Fluid heads are best, but standard heads work fine if you keep them clean and well lubed. If the animal starts moving you will need to tilt or pan the tripod head to follow. A sticky or jerky tripod head will make it near impossible to follow the game smoothly. I once lost track of a trophy-sized mule deer in the Arizona desert due to a sticky tripod head. The deer was walking though a brushy wash as I was attempting to pan to the side to keep the scope on him. The head would not pan smoothly, it jerked and I lost sight of the animal just as he entered the wash. I never found him again. That big buck may have been memorialized on my wall if it weren’t for that cheap tripod head.
Start with your spotting scope on the lowest power setting and find the landmark that you pinpointed earlier with your binoculars. The lowest magnification setting will give you the widest field of view and help you relocate your target quickly. Once found, then you can crank the magnification up, adjusting the focus accordingly. It usually helps if you drape a dark towel or T-shirt over your head to block out the surrounding light. This will also allow you to relax your offside eye a bit. You won’t have to squint as hard and it will lead to less eye fatigue and more comfort when looking through the scope for long periods.
Once you have a clear, zoomed-in picture of your target, it’s time to start sizing him up. This is where local anatomical knowledge of your quarry helps. If you can, visit a taxidermist’s shop in the area you plan to hunt beforehand. Ask the taxidermist to show you an average-sized animal for the area and take measurements of the ear-to-ear spread, the length and width of the head, the width of the eye and the ground-to-shoulder height. Place these notes on a card and carry it with you in the field. A local wildlife biologist would also be an excellent person to contact to inquire about these same measurements. Simply call the closest fish and game branch and ask for the biologist’s number. Most are very willing to talk and share their knowledge.
With these reference measurements, you can start getting an idea of the trophy quality of the animal in your scope. If deer in the area typically have a 22-inch tip-to-tip ear spread, and the buck’s rack you are looking at is wider than its ears, odds are, you are looking at a nice buck. If that antelope you have in your spotting scope has 6-inch ears and you can visually stack 2.5 ear lengths up his horn, you are looking at a big buck! If that bull elk has antlers that reach way above his shoulder with his head down feeding, he may have 50-inch main beams and could be a genuine whopper. Anatomical reference measurements can greatly help you make a good decision in the field.
After the gun goes boom or the arrow finds its mark and your trophy is on the ground, it’s time to see if your field judging skills were up to snuff. For rough scoring, the most simple and necessary tool for measuring virtually any animal is a quarter-inch-wide steel measuring tape. A mini tape measure sold at any hardware store will suffice. A small tape takes up little weight and space and is a good tool to keep in your pack or at camp. A folding ruler and a length of flexible steel cable can come in handy too.
You may have heard a hunter say he is looking for a 180-class mule deer buck, or maybe a 320-inch bull elk. They are talking about the score, and for all intents and purposes, this score is the tally of all inches measured off of an animal’s antlers or horns. It is the generally accepted standard for determining size and/or trophy status. The process is unique to each species with many intricate nuances.
Keep in mind, an animal’s score doesn’t automatically mean it’s a “trophy,” nor should it. It’s just a reference. Last year I drew an excellent archery elk tag in Utah. The world-record elk was killed in this same unit. Yet with that same tag in my pocket, all I wanted was a mature, representative animal. I set a personal goal of 300 inches, what many may consider a smaller bull for this unit. When I told other hunters of my standards, some of them laughed at me. Most told me to hold out for at least a 340- to 350-inch bull, but to me, elk steaks in the freezer are better than an unfilled tag. I ended up going home with a 310-inch bull and lots of winter meat — just what the doctor ordered. I passed up a few smaller bulls, and had close calls with some bigger ones, but in the end, understanding the scoring process and being able to set and accomplish a goal enhanced the hunting experience for me. And in the end, that’s what it’s all about.
The topic of an animal’s score and trophy hunting can often stir up a hornet’s nest of passionate emotions and opinions among hunters. Some think trophy hunting to be the bane of hunting’s future, and some think it is critical to wildlife management by allowing animals to reach maturity. Regardless of which camp you’re in, my intent is not to bring about debate, but rather educate.
Just in case you want my opinion on the matter (or even if you don’t!) I’m of the mindset that rather than something to tout around the campfire, trophy standards should be a personal thing. The score of an animal shouldn’t be about ego or getting into record books for fame’s sake. It should be about exercising restraint and setting individual goals. An animal’s score is simply a good measuring stick. It’s a tool to use as a benchmark or something to strive for — for yourself, not anyone else. Before even starting the race, any successful marathon runner has a time that he or she wants to beat.
Setting a personal standard with a score indicative of a mature animal is a similar benchmark for a hunter. It’s a noble pursuit. The accomplishment of a hunting goal is often one of life’s most cherished moments. If understanding the score of an animal helps you accomplish such a goal, well, I can only see the good in such an experience.
About the Author
BD Outdoors Hunting Editor Nate Treadwell has hunted all over the United States and internationally. He enjoys hunting just about everything from antelope to zebra. Nate will be writing regular hunting articles for BD Outdoors as well as a Q & A column. Nate is an accomplished hunter and serves as an official measurer for the Pope and Young Club and the California Bowman Hunters (CBH). Nate is a life member of CBH’s Big Game Club and currently holds a committee seat. His passion for being in the field is second to none. Nate regularly contributes to several national bowhunting publications and serves on the pro-staffs for a number of hunting-related companies. He graduated from the University of California, Riverside, and is currently a senior financial advisor for a Wall Street firm and lives in San Diego, with his wife, Katie and son Zach. Nate’s other interests include fishing, competitive archery, camping and physical fitness.